Help children develop an internal motivation for learning

Story by Jared Lisonbee
Mon, Mar 25, 2013
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When my daughter was in second grade, she reminded me of an important lesson about motivation for learning.

My daughter’s teacher wanted to encourage her class to read. To do this, she offered what was, in effect, a bribe.

My daughter brought home a reading log to complete for the week. She was supposed to read for at least 20 minutes each day and then have an adult initial that she had completed the reading for the day. If she returned her completed form at the end of the week, she could choose a sucker from the teacher’s “reward stash.”

She regularly read on her own, so she was excited to participate to receive what she considered to be a slam-dunk reward. I gladly signed her reading form for her after much more than 20 minutes of reading.

The next day, when my daughter finished reading several chapters in a new book, I offered to sign her reading form for her.

She replied: “No, thanks, dad. I’ve decided that I don’t like the suckers the teacher is giving out, so I just want to read.”

I was more excited about her response on the second day than the first. She was at the point where reading provided enjoyment, an intrinsic reward. She did not need an external reward to motivate her.

Research on learning motivation suggests that children (and adults) learn more effectively when engaged in a learning activity, such as reading, for enjoyment rather than to receive a promised “reward.”

External, or extrinsic, rewards can be helpful tools to develop intrinsic motivation. Offering a sucker as incentive to read might have helped some children start reading, possibly leading to reading for enjoyment.

The problem comes when the reward becomes the end goal rather than the means to develop intrinsic motivation for learning. If the motivation is to receive an external reward, the learning process becomes a “job” or a “chore” rather than a source of joy.

Parents and teachers can help children develop internal motivation for learning in several ways.

First, acknowledge and celebrate the child’s interests and curiosity. If a child shows interest in learning about insects, help the child find books or websites on insects to explore.

Second, encourage internal motivation by highlighting learning and development. “Remember how you weren’t able to recognize many of the words in this book at the start of the year. Look how much you have learned since you started learning to read!”

Third, focus on the learning “process” rather than the “product.” Instead of rewarding a child’s reading with generic praise or a special treat, highlight the child’s effort. “That was a hard book with a lot of words you didn’t know. You worked hard to learn the new words and you didn’t give up, even when it was hard.”

By being curious learners ourselves and encouraging intrinsically motivated learning in children, we can help children develop the gift of a lifelong love of reading and learning.

Jared Lisonbee is on the faculty of the Weber State University department of child and family studies. The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of WSU.

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